Daniel Fienberg's Best TV of 2015

7:55 AM 12/17/2015

by Daniel Fienberg

'Fargo,' 'The Leftovers' and 'Black-ish' were among some of the most entertaining shows this year, according to THR's television critic.

Courtesy of FX Networks; HBO; ABC

Great TV came in many shapes and sizes in 2015, and my top 10 of the year reflects at least some of that diversity. From a network comedy to a premium cable late-night show to a streaming animated half-hour to a slew of golden age dramas, the list runs the gamut. An impressive six series here premiered in 2014, with several making big creative leaps in their second seasons. And then there are the two venerable shows that had triumphant conclusions. When I sketched out my top 10, I knew what the first five shows would be, and I knew I wanted what ended up occupying the sixth and seventh slots to be somewhere on the list as well. But the last three slots involved hair-pulling — and many of the shows that will appear on my "Second 10" list missed the first cut by the slimmest of margins.

Let's get down to business …

  1. 1
    10

    'The Jinx'

    HBO

    Courtesy of HBO

    One of TV's most resilient cottage industries is the genre in which experts go into the field to explain or solve mysteries and then fail. Somehow audiences don't care. The pleasure is in the pursuit. But imagine if Ghost Hunters actually found ghosts. Or if Finding Bigfoot... found Bigfoot. Andrew Jarecki set out to uncover the truth about Robert Durst and, in pulse-pounding, jaw-dropping fashion, did just that.

    We may never understand why Durst gave Jarecki and collaborators Marc Smerling and Zachary Stuart-Pontier such access and such chilling, candid interviews. And we might never understand why Durst was unaware or didn't care that he didn't remove or turn off his mic pack after his final interview. And we could probably argue about documentary ethics and who knew what when and who told who what. I'll leave the legal discussion for the lawyers. The Jinx was six episodes of captivating, provocative, gripping television, the best of 2015.

  2. 2
    10

    Fargo

    FX

    Courtesy of FX

    Adapting the Coen Brothers' Fargo into a TV series was a foolhardy idea, but Noah Hawley did it and the result was 2014's best show. So why not raise the difficulty bar? Why not set a second season in 1979? With Ronald Reagan as a character. And a UFO. And enough carnage to make the first season look like a child-friendly pastoral. Somehow, Hawley did it again and even expanded his own duties to include his directorial debut.

    The second season was packed with period texture, groovy music, unexpected twists, hilarious turns and a deep cast without any dud performances. Big names including Kirsten Dunst, Patrick Wilson, Jesse Plemons, Ted Danson, Nick Offerman and Jean Smart all shined, but they were equaled by less familiar stars like Bokeem Woodbine, Rachel Keller and Zahn McClarnon. Bring on the third season!

  3. 3
    10

    The Leftovers

    HBO

    Van Redin/HBO

    Even on cable, episodic TV has rules, but Damon Lindelof decided they didn't apply to the second season of The Leftovers. Emboldened by an already alienating first season, Lindelof kicked off this year's run with a cave woman giving birth. Then he introduced a brand new setting and, with it, fresh characters and fresh reactions to The Sudden Departure. Then he did the indescribable thing that happened in "International Assassin."

    And along the way, a funny thing happened. As the structure became less structured and the mysteries became more mysterious, this look at grief, loss and learning to accept the unknowable became better and began winning back viewers who tuned out previously. The audience, still small, witnessed raw and marvelous performances from Justin Theroux, Carrie Coon, Christopher Eccleston and newcomers Regina King and Kevin Carroll.

  4. 4
    10

    Mad Men

    AMC

    Justina Mintz/AMC

    Splitting the final 14 episodes of Mad Men over two seasons did Matthew Weiner's landmark drama series no creative favors, but at least it let Jon Hamm finally win a well-deserved Emmy.

    The last run of Mad Men episodes started slowly and had some viewers ranting about why they should care about some waitress named Diana. By the end, though, Don Draper's search for meaning led him to unexpected and powerful places — and the season delivered classic moments like Peggy's cigarette-in-mouth office entrance and Pete punching the headmaster over a long-time family feud, as well as memorable storylines like Betty's health problems, and more. 

  5. 5
    10

    Review

    Comedy Central

    Danny Feld

    Who'd have guessed reviewing "Catfishing," "Leading a Cult" and "Having an Imaginary Friend" would lead to such trauma for Forrest MacNeil? Only everybody. And who could have predicted that introducing a veto to Forrest MacNeil's TV reviewing repertoire would be his true undoing? Only everybody.

    For the second straight season, Andy Daly and director Jeffrey Blitz's Comedy Central series took its main character to places of ever-increasing darkness without sacrificing its I-can't-believe-I'm-laughing-at-this-awful-thing sense of humor. The show can be as painful as the fate of Clovers and as hilariously painful as A.J. Gibbs' glee at kicking Forrest in the nads, but neither the show nor its main character ever sacrifice their strange internal logic.

  6. 6
    10

    BoJack Horseman

    Netflix

    Courtesy of Netflix

    It was funny, because after three or four episodes of the second season, some people were wondering if landing his dream role in Secretariat had taken the sadness out of BoJack Horseman and out of the animated Netflix series that bears his name. Ha.

    Happiness isn't in the cards for BoJack and the brief window of success couldn't prevent a spiral that climaxed in "Escape From L.A.," as mortifying a half-hour as TV has ever offered. Diane's attempts at noble altruism led her to depression, Princess Carolyn's relationship with Vincent Adultman hit predictable bumps and it turns out that there's no satisfaction as hollow as Mr. Peanutbutter satisfaction. And if animated misery doesn't work for you, BoJack Horseman still has all of the Hollywood satire and cute anthropomorphic animals you could ever want.

  7. 7
    10

    Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

    HBO

    Courtesy of HBO

    If John Oliver's year had consisted entirely of the one April episode in which he flew to Russian and interviewed Edward Snowden, HBO's late-night dose of scathing political insight and commentary would deserve placement on end-of-the-year lists. That Snowden interview was equal parts intelligent journalistic inquiry and low-brow comic accessibility, and put every other news show to shame.

    But then you had Oliver's ongoing demolition of FIFA hierarchy, his pointed mockery and emulation of predatory churches, his illumination of several international elections and his use of Days of Our Lives as a tribute to a 16-year-old Syrian refugee. We got 35 episodes of Last Week Tonight in 2015, which still felt like 17 weeks too few.

  8. 8
    10

    Justified

    FX

    Prashant Gupta

    It's still a mystery what happened to Justified in its fifth season. But whatever mojo Graham Yost and company lost in their over-investment in the Crowe family and ill-advised detours to Mexico, they regained in steering the world of Harlan to a hugely satisfying finale. Mary Steenburgen, Sam Elliott, Garret Dillahunt and Jonathan Tucker fueled a season's worth of coal country menace, smooth-talking criminality and shocking violence, but Justified truly came down to Timothy Olyphant's Raylan and Walton Goggins' Boyd, just as we always knew it would.

    Every scene between those two was infused with macho one-upmanship, threats and rivalry, but the series and the performances never let us forget that what bound those characters together was something deeper.

  9. 9
    10

    Rectify

    Sundance

    Curtis Baker/SundanceTV

    Still TV's most spiritual drama, Rectify offered a third season that added the amped-up urgency of a decades-old murder investigation to creator Ray McKinnon's established contemplative pacing, making it probably the series' most accessible run to date. Aden Young's criminally underrated performance is still the show's anchor, as Daniel Holden continues to deal with the guilt and recriminations from both the crimes he did commit and the crimes he probably didn't.

    But Rectify is no longer just Young's vehicle. In her best season yet, Abigail Spencer added a welcome vein of sardonic comedy and Clayne Crawford's ability to push Teddy Jr. from hissable stooge to complicated and expectation-challenging near-protagonist has been a marvel.

  10. 10
    10

    Black-ish

    ABC

    After the usual growing pains when it launched, Black-ish has been on a prodigious streak of episodes balancing hot-button social issues and some of the best comedy-with-heart going on TV. The title, which offended Donald Trump and thus should serve as a badge of honor, has reflected Kenya Barris' ability to deal directly with race —the MLK ski trip, Jack's misadventures with the n-word — or examine the world through a race-inflected prism (storylines touching on church attendance, gun control or the horror of liberal parents watching their children experiment with Republicanism).

    Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross are versatile leads and Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Lewis are having the time of their lives, but much credit is due to Yara Shahidi, Marcus Scribner, Miles Brown and especially Marsai Marin, four of TV's best young comic talents.

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